Lady Jane Grey was the first child of Henry Grey, Marquess of Dorset, and his wife, Frances. Dorset was Henry VIII’s half-second cousin (Elizabeth Woodville was his great-grandmother), and Frances was Henry’s niece, daughter of Mary the French Queen, and her second husband, Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk.
Henry VIII was on good terms with both sides of Jane’s family, hence she was at the heart of the royal family from birth. Queen Jane Seymour was her godmother although she never knew her personally as the Queen died in October 1537, after giving birth to a son, later Edward VI.
Recent research by Jane’s biographer, Leanda de Lisle, has identified that Jane was born in London, rather than the family home of Bradgate in Leicestershire, but she is likely to have been taken to the country as soon after her birth as was practicable. London was no place for infants, and aristocratic mothers did not undertake hands-on child care.
Jane’s father patronised scholars at home and abroad, and was also a supporter of the new fashion for giving girls an academic, as well as a practical and cultural, education. This may have been enhanced by his ambitions for his daughters to marry well - he wanted them to have an education similar to that received by their cousins, the Princesses Mary and Elizabeth. Jane’s formal education began in 1545 under John Aylmer. It included Latin, Greek and French.
As well as being a firm supporter of scholarship, Dorset was radical in his religious beliefs. As the divergence between traditional Catholics and Evangelicals began to polarise in the 1540s, he was one of those who would later be termed Protestant, and Jane’s education reflected this. It was no longer enough for the Evangelicals to demand the Scriptures in the vernacular, to deny the authority of the Pope and to promulgate the doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone, they were now beginning to question the doctrine of transubstantiation, the heart of Catholicism.
Whilst Henry VIII lived, the more zealous reformers kept these beliefs to themselves, but Jane was brought up in them and became totally committed to them. In this, the influence of Katherine Willoughby, Dowager Duchess of Suffolk, was probably also a factor. Lady Suffolk, who had been brought up with Frances with the intention of marrying Frances’ brother, had, instead, married Frances’ father, after the death of Mary, the French Queen. She was known as a religious radical, and a leading light amongst the learned ladies of an evangelical bent who surrounded Queen Katherine Parr.
It was into this circle that Jane was introduced when she was about nine years old. Lady Dorset was one of the Queen’s ladies, along with Lady Suffolk, Lady Hertford (wife of Edward Seymour, Prince Edward’s uncle) and other women with evangelical interests. Jane was at court with her mother from time to time.
When Henry VIII died at the end of January 1547, Jane’s cousin, Edward, became king. Despite Henry VIII’s intention for England to be ruled by a Regency Council, the Earl of Hertford took control, promoting himself to the Dukedom of Somerset. Somerset, like his wife, was a religious reformer, and Edward’s education took on a distinctly evangelical tone. This accorded well with Dorset’s views although he had no place on the Council – Henry VIII, it appears, did not think him sound.
The other aspect of Henry’s will that would shape the rest of Jane’s life was the succession clause. Under the Act of Succession of 1544, Henry’s heirs were his three children: first Edward and his heirs; then Mary and hers and finally, Elizabeth and her heirs. But Henry was permitted by the Act to name heirs in remainder, should he have no grandchildren. Passing over the common law claims of the descendants of his eldest sister, Margaret, Queen of Scots, Henry named Frances’ children as his heirs, although not Frances herself.
Whatever Dorset’s actual political ability, he certainly had ambition. Although it must have seemed unlikely that Dorset’s children would ever inherit the throne (there was no reason to think Edward would not marry and have children), there was another possibility – perhaps Jane could marry Edward?
Dorset arranged to sell Jane’s wardship to Sir Thomas Seymour. Seymour, the younger brother of Somerset, was aggrieved at being overshadowed by his sibling, and was seeking his own route to power by marrying the Dowager Queen. It was agreed that Jane would live with them, and that Seymour would promote Jane’s marriage to the King.
Accordingly, Jane went to Chelsea where Queen Katherine had settled, with Jane’s cousin, Elizabeth, also in attendance. Whilst Jane might have been sorry to leave her sisters, it was common practice for children of all classes to be brought up by other guardians - it was at the root of the whole system of social relationships. A place in the Queen Dowager’s household was the best in the country for Jane.
Sir Thomas Seymour's Ward
Whilst in the care of Seymour and Katherine, Jane continued her studies. By all accounts she was a prodigy of learning. But the family idyll could not last. In 1548, a pregnant Queen Katherine was obliged to take seriously the conduct of her husband with Elizabeth. Initially, she had treated his overfamiliar behaviour with her step-daughter as a joke, but eventually she could not close her eyes to the increasingly flirtatious (to put it no higher) nature of their relationship. Elizabeth was sent away, and Katherine retired to Sudeley Castle in Gloucestershire, Jane accompanying her.
That summer, Dorset visited Sudeley, partly to see his daughter, and partly to discuss politics with Seymour. Seymour was becoming more and more disgruntled about Somerset’s position, and was beginning to plot against him. He hoped to draw Dorset into his schemes.
Jane probably knew nothing of this, but her world was about to be turned upside down, when Queen Katherine died of childbed fever on 5th September 1548. Jane was chief mourner.
It was not suitable for a young girl to be resident in the household of a widower, so arrangements were made for Jane to return to her family. Within a few weeks, however, Seymour, was requesting her return. He had invited his mother, Margery, Lady Seymour, to superintend his household and bring up his little daughter. Lady Seymour was well into her sixties, having been a court beauty in the retinue of Jane’s great-grandmother, Elizabeth of York.
Frances, however, objected. Although she and her husband would, of course, consult Seymour about Jane’s marriage when the time came, the girl should be at home with her mother at this point in her adolescence.
But Seymour was determined, and reiterated his promises to Dorset that, if left in his hands, Jane would marry the King. Whether their ambition was selfish or they genuinely thought they were promoting Jane’s best interests, her parents relented, and returned Jane to Seymour’s care. In their defence, it should be said that Jane seemed to want it too, writing to Seymour that she thought of him as a ‘loving and kindly father’.
Jane returned to Seymour’s care, and lived throughout the winter of 1548 – 9 at Seymour Place, in London. But by March, Seymour had overreached himself. He was in the Tower on suspicion of treason, part of the allegations against him being that he sought to marry Elizabeth.
Dorset swiftly took Jane back to Dorset Place, and she was probably there when she heard of her guardian’s execution.
1549 was a tumultuous year – two rebellions, one in the West Country, known as the Prayer Book Rebellion, sought to undo Somerset’s religious changes; the one in East Anglia hoped to improve the lot of the agricultural tenants who were suffering under the increased prevalence of enclosure of previously common land.
Somerset was not able to manage either situation effectively, and he was eclipsed by John Dudley, Earl of Warwick. Dorset, overlooked by Somerset, soon became one of Warwick’s political allies and was appointed at last to the Privy Council.
Meanwhile. Jane was undertaking the usual activities of noble ladies, visiting friends and family. In the late autumn of 1549, Frances took her daughters to stay with Frances’ cousin, the Lady Mary. Mary was heir to the throne, and the highest ranking lady in the country. She and Frances had been good companions in their youth, but were now divided by their religious views – although it is not apparent that Frances had any strong religious views of her own, she conformed to Dorset’s lead.
Jane was already making a name for herself amongst Protestant scholars, being described to Bullinger as ‘pious and accomplished beyond what can be expressed’. This devotion to her studies however, did not make the pains of adolescence any easier to bear.
In 1550, she told Roger Ascham, during a visit he paid to Bradgate, that her life was a misery – nothing she could do was right, her parents were constantly chastising her and her only comfort was in the time she spent with her tutor.
At the time, Ascham did not think Jane’s parents unduly harsh. He praised her learning extravagantly, and noted the Dorsets’ pride in her achievements. In particular, Dorset was proud of her Greek correspondence with Bullinger, and in due course, her progress in Hebrew.
With so much interest in her intellectual development, and correspondence with some of the most important Protestant thinkers, it is not surprising that, in her next meeting with her Catholic cousin, Mary, Jane and the Princess clashed. Jane visited Mary in 1550, and, observing one of Mary’s ladies curtseying in the chapel, asked if the Princess were present. She was answered that the curtesy was for ‘Him that made us all’. There were very few people in England at the time who did not truly believe that Christ was really present in the consecrated wafer – Jane’s circle comprised most of those people. She asked how He who made us all could be there – hadn’t the baker baked him?
This was a blasphemy so shocking that in Henry’s time, Jane might well have been headed straight for the flames, as Anne Askew had been for the same view. John Foxe wrote that Mary never forgave Jane – although it seems highly unlikely that the Princess would have borne a grudge against a thirteen year old girl.
In 1551, Somerset tried to regain power. He also hoped to promote his own daughter, Lady Jane Seymour, as a match for the King. This made him an obstacle to both Dorset and Warwick, shortly to be promoted to the dukedoms of Suffolk and Northumberland respectively. Enough evidence was cobbled together for Somerset to be executed for treason.
The Duke and Duchess of Suffolk and Jane were high in royal favour. They attended the reception for Marie of Guise, Queen Dowager of Scotland, in November 1551, and Jane formed part of the procession that accompanied Marie through London. It was noted that Marie had a very elaborate style of dress, but that the Lady Elizabeth was dressed very simply.
The evangelicals were strongly promoting the idea of plain dress and a minimum of ornamentation, as well as beginning to frown on many of the ordinary pleasures of noble life – hunting, dancing, and cards. Elizabeth had adopted a plainer style, partly to minimise the scandal she had been exposed to by Seymour, and Jane was soon able to show her own adherence to it.
Lady Mary sent her a New Year gift of an elaborate gold gown, which was spurned with the words that Jane could not follow the Lady Mary who rejected God’s Word, and leave the Lady Elizabeth who followed it.
As 1552 opened, the chances of Jane being married to Edward increased. Obviously, he could not marry Jane Seymour now her father had been executed, and the betrothal to Elisabeth de Valois had not progressed.
The introduction of the 1552 Prayer Book, which swept away what had been left of the old faith in the 1549 Prayer Book, was welcome to Jane, who was corresponding with an even wider circle of scholars and divines. They were eager to be aligned with a young evangelical who might soon be queen consort.
But there was never any material discussion of such a marriage, and by the spring of 1553, Edward was in failing health. He drew up what he called his ‘Devise for the Succession’, whether entirely of his own volition or persuaded by others, will never be satisfactorily concluded. Edward’s aims were twofold – to prevent a Catholic succession, and to appoint a male heir.
The only male with a realistic claim was Henry, Lord Darnley, grandson of Henry VIII’s sister, Margaret, Queen of Scots, but Darnley’s mother, the Countess of Lennox, was a Catholic, and Darnley who was only eight, would be unlikely to be brought up as a Protestant. Edward decided to appoint the heirs male of Frances, then of Jane, then of her two sisters, and then of her cousin, Margaret Clifford. But none of them had an heir male, and the four girls were not even married. Edward was forced to unbend so far as to suggest that the mother of this as-yet-unborn male might be regent.
Suddenly, there were four girls whose value in the marriage market had shot up.
A flurry of matches was considered, including one for Jane with Northumberland’s fourth, but only unmarried, son, Guilford. There has been considerable debate as to whose idea this match was: Edward, either spontaneously or cleverly prompted by Northumberland and the Marquess of Northampton and his wife, have been suggested. However, no matter whose idea it was, the match would never have taken place without Northumberland and Suffolk agreeing terms. Jane’s own opinion is highly unlikely to have been asked.
Frances had previously suggested that she did not want Jane to marry too young, and she claimed later that she had objected. Suffolk was reputed to be not so keen on the idea as Northumberland, but after being told it was Edward’s wish, he agreed. At the same time, Jane’s sister, Katherine, was to be married to the Earl of Pembroke’s son and eight year old Mary Grey to another of Northumberland’s circle.
Jane was married on 25th May 1553. Edward was too ill to attend but sent gifts. After the ceremony, the bride, now Lady Jane Dudley, took up residence with her in-laws. Although it has been speculated subsequently that the marriage was not consummated, there was no denial at the time that it had been.
Edward had now been told that his illness was mortal, and that he would not live long enough to persuade Parliament to alter the succession. His ‘Devise’ was updated to will the crown to ‘Lady Jane AND her heirs male’ and Letters Patent were issued to that effect. The members of the Privy Council were divided between those who were desperate for a Protestant heir, and would do anything to achieve it, and those who did not believe Edward’s will to be legal. Eventually, they were all, including the Lord Chief Justice, Montague, bullied into accepting Edward’s Letters Patent
The legality of Edward’s will has been debated in Eric Ives’ ‘The Mystery of Lady Jane Grey’, however, it is hard to escape from the fact that first, Edward was not competent to make a will as he was still under age and second, although the constitutional position was not laid down in black and white, a King’s Letters Patent could not overturn an Act of Parliament. The 1544 Act named Mary and Elizabeth to follow Edward.
Queen & Prisoner
On 6th July, the King died, and the following day Jane was proclaimed as queen in London. She was so little known that the grounds of her inheritance needed to be explained to the populace, which was distinctly underwhelmed. Jane, it appears, was unaware of her new status. Her sister-in-law, Lady Mary Sidney, was sent to fetch her from Chelsea, where she and Guilford were living. She was brought to Syon House, near Richmond, and the following day, a group of Privy Councillors knelt and told her she was now queen.
On 9th July, faced with the whole Privy Council, Jane strenuously objected to her position, but was persuaded that it was for the good of the country that the Catholic Mary and the Protestant, but illegitimate, Elizabeth, should be passed over. Seeing her duty clear, she accepted her new role.
In accordance with tradition, on 10th July, Jane travelled in state to the Tower of London, to take possession. She then dined at her father-in-law’s house to be greeted with a letter from Princess Mary, demanding that the Privy Council immediately declare her queen. Afterward, she and Guilford returned to the Tower.
Before long, it was apparent that Jane could only keep the crown through force of arms. She refused to let her father, who was ill, leave her side, so Northumberland was sent out with an army to try to capture Mary. As soon as he had left, it became clear that support for Jane was not whole-hearted. Reports came in from all over the country that the towns were declaring for Mary, and the crews of several royal ships stationed off Great Yarmouth had mutinied.
Jane sent numerous letters to the shires, demanding troops, but even as she did so, her Privy Councillors were slipping away. Before long, Mary had been proclaimed in London, and Suffolk came into Jane’s room and took down the cloth of estate, saying it was not for her. In an act that seems totally heartless, Suffolk and Frances left Jane in the Tower and retreated to Baynard’s Castle.
The rest of the Tower was soon filled with Queen Mary’s prisoners, amongst whom was Suffolk. Frances had succeeded in getting into Mary’s presence and pleading for her own life and that of her husband. Mary agreed, and was also minded to pardon Jane. Nevertheless, order had to be maintained and Jane was charged with treason and moved from the royal apartments in the Tower to the Lord Lieutenant’s lodging.
She remained there, treated honourably and allowed visitors, although not her husband, until her trial on 13th November. The trial took place at the Guildhall, and, unsurprisingly, she was found guilty. The sentence was not carried out, and it was believed that Queen Mary intended to pardon both Jane and Guilford.
All might have been well, until Suffolk became embroiled in Wyatt’s Rebellion. This was a scheme hatched over the winter of 1553 – 1554 to prevent Mary’s marriage to Philip of Spain and replace her with either Elizabeth, or Jane.
Once the plot was uncovered there was only one thing that could save Jane: a public acceptance of the traditional Catholic faith. Mary sent her own priest, Dr Feckenham, to her in hopes of converting her. Whilst Jane liked Feckenham very much and found him a kind and gentle advocate for his faith, she would not yield. Feckenham was so moved by the plight of the girl that he asked Mary to pardon her. But Mary was persuaded that her earlier pardons had just encouraged rebellion.
Jane wrote letters to her father and to her sister Katherine but refused a final meeting with her husband.
On 12th February, she mounted the scaffold within the precincts of the Tower, and, after first acknowledging that she had been wrong to accept the crown, she repeated that she had done so only reluctantly. Then, after she had affirmed her Protestant faith, her eyes were covered and her outer garments removed. Unable to see, she had a moment of panic, as she could not find the block to lay her head down. But she was helped to kneel, and then her head was struck off.
Jane was buried in the church of St Peter ad Vincula, in the Tower precincts.
Leanda de Lisle, author of The Sisters who would be Queen and Tudor: the Family Story, spoke at the Ryedale Book Festival in October 2017, on Mary, Katherine and Lady Jane Grey: Heirs to the last Tudor.
Watch it here